In 2008 as a VSO volunteer with Voluntary Services Overseas I (Paul) was living with Isatou and her family in the village of Mansajang, Upper River Region in rural Gambia. l started as an IT capacity builder working for the ministry of education, embedding the national Education Management Information System (EMIS) that feeds data into national decision making and support agencies such as UNICEF and the WorldBank, as well as managing URR IT projects from the regional office.
Through my friendship with Isatou, we were brimming with ideas about how to work with the local communities on a number of projects. Isatou took the lead and stepped in with an early idea… why not start teaching IT classes to children in the village (the younger brothers were already raring to go!). So equip with just a single old refurbished laptop and little to no electricity in the region we started to form a plan… to work with a local entrepreneur trying to set up a small video shack/ internet cafe. We paid for fuel and for a generator to be run outside of electricity supply hours so we could take over 6 computers in the late afternoons (like an after school club!) and run small classes. The idea was to give village students an opportunity for early exposure to computers, to have some fun, build some IT confidence and perhaps inspire a little a long the way.
I was new to the region and Isatou enthralled by the project lead me excitedly around the village, an opportunity to build stronger community ties and to ask parents for permission for their Child to attend. Everything was new, walking through the sandy village weaving between round houses, straw compound fences and Baobab and Mango tress. It was like a maze that was thriving with community life. A donkey cart passed by, steered bravely by a young boy on his way to the family farm, scattering a hen and its Chiclets that ran underfoot. Female Killyans (vendors) started gathering outside the local Bitiko (shop) with bowls of food to serve for the evening. Frail old men, the village elders, sat underneath a Bantabar (village gathering) made from bamboo sticks and a straw roof. Young women carried gallons of water on their heads back from the village tap, whilst roaming goats scavenged the perimeters with the young chasing behind . Men brewed Attaya tea, whilst women chased young kids back into their compounds. It was an early and fascinating insight into the community.I was ready to teach but I knew I also had so much to learn.
Every parents response was similar. The parents welcomed us and the growing pack of children that had slowly accumulated along the way, into their compounds with open arms, often feeding us peanuts or Attaya green tea, and jumping at the idea of IT classes. They thanked us profusely, prayed for our success and gave the team blessings before turning to the child to say “It is now up to you. A stranger has come and offered you something out of kindness. It is now down to you to take this seriously, and to make something of this”
Have you seen my house?
But the final village compound was one that really summed it all up, and stayed in all of our memories to this day. The evening was starting to draw in and the nights darkness had settled. So much warm hospitality had meant it had taken longer than planned. The whole gang approached the final compound between two thatched mud-brick round houses and waited in the dark before a frail but lively old man arrived and welcomed us all in. “Welcome Welcome” he repeated flashing a torch revealing a huge gap-toothed endearing smile that was coloured red from chewing on Kola nuts. He knocked his walking stick down on the ground and invited everyone to sit on a colourful mat in the middle of the compound. Isatou explained our visit and purpose in the Mandinka language and I sat in awe, under the stars surrounded by new friends, with the warmth of hospitality that had been given all afternoon deep in amazement at the wisdom that shone from the Man and everything he said. He spoke in riddle, and proverbs with wit and humour of the local culture.
Finally, it was getting late so when I pushed for an answer “so is it ok if your son attends our classes?” I was once again taken back by surprise. The old man lifted his stick, pointed to the round house and flickered a torch briefly before turning back…. “Have you seen my house?” The man said wittily with a big cheeky smile.
All the children erupted into a burst of laughter, rolling around on the floor. I was stumped. Lost in the moment? Lost in translation? Lost in over thinking? Lost in culture?
The old man went on to explain… had we seen his house? In his words it was a poor mud round-house with a thatched roof, he lived in a poor compound with very little wealth and very little possessions. Why wouldn’t he want his child to have this opportunity to create something better for their future?
Everyone returned home humbled. The children continued to laugh about the old mans jokes throughout the night. Myself and Isatou were glad to have engaged the community, had parents buy-into the idea and also be prepared to give the child spare time to attend to create no future conflicts. It was the start for us to take community development seriously, to work collaboratively with the community, and to approach it properly and so IT classes became our very first project.
We went on to run classes for close to two months, with a strong mix of boys and girls of different ages, covering everything from creating folders, writing letters, designing posters and drawing pictures in ‘paint, discovering many hidden talents along the way. Sadly one day we turned up to find the internet shack packed up and gone. Business was poor, the entrepreneur had moved to the town of Basse. The children led me there for 2 further weeks, a 20 minute walk under the blistering sun, still determined to continue classes. Then we turned up to find it had packed up and gone, this time moved to the capital Banjul as business was still a struggle.
These particular IT classes came to an end, but it was the start of something beautiful.
‘Have you seen my house’ became quite the catchphrase.
This week marks Global Development week. Have you, your organisation or business connected to the UN Global Development Goals?
Thanks for reading Project 1, IT classes. Look out as we re-cap on more project memories before our Gambia visit coming this November 2018.
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Paul & Isatou 🙂